By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.
Flexibility is an important requirement for dancers of any style. When practiced correctly, stretching can increase your flexibility, improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury. Are you using the most up to date stretching methods as part of your dance practice?
Should I stretch before class?
Stretching should definitely be a part of your warm up, but the type of stretching you should be doing at this time is dynamic, rather than static. But first, it is imperative to raise your core temperature by doing some light aerobic exercise before doing your dynamic stretches. This could be as simple as a five minute jog around the studio, or making a couple of trips up and down the studio stairs.
Once you're a little sweaty, it's safe to do your dynamic stretching. This means actively moving through your range of motion. An example could be circling your ankles or shoulders, or controlled leg and arm swings. A good dynamic stretch is one that reproduces the movement patterns required for the exercises you are about to undertake in class, rehearsal or performance. Start slow and gradually increase power and movement.
Believe it or not, stretching to your end-range before dance class actually reduces strength, stability and jump height, as well as increases your risk of injury. It should be avoided at all costs.
Many Pilates exercises incorporate dynamic stretching, so before class is a good time to do your Pilates routine.
Will stretching for longer make me more flexible?
The short answer to this is 'no'. You only need to hold your static stretch (but not your breath) for 30 seconds, then relax. After a brief rest, repeat the stretch two or three times. If you are a child or young adult whose bones are still growing, keep stretches to 10 seconds or less.
Contrary to what you may believe, prolonged stretching is not appropriate for dancers. It should only be used by medical professionals, as it can actually lead to loss of stability and serious injury, if not practiced under supervision. Stretching for extended periods of time can elongate joints and ligaments, which are there to keep your joints stable. What you need to be stretching are your muscles and their connective tissues, which can be achieved with shorter stretches.
A good time to do your static stretches is at the end of your cool down after class. At this point you no longer need to be strong and stable, so it's time to let your muscles loosen a little. When stretching during your cool down, keep your breath fluid, not forced. Use slow, relaxed breathing, with an emphasis on exhalation. Inhale through the nose, which will filter and warm the air you inhale and allow more oxygen into your lungs (just ask any yogi!).
Should I bounce in a stretch?
You should not bounce as part of your stretching program. However, many dance movements are actually classed asballistic (bouncing) stretches; grand battement, for example. There is a reason why grand battement comes towards the end of the barre, because you are then at your warmest and most supple, making it the safest time to perform this movement.
Should I stretch every day?
It depends on your goal. If you are aiming to maintain your range of motion, a weekly stretch session is sufficient, although doing a few short, basic stretches at the end of your practice is helpful.
If your goal is to increase your flexibility, you need to consistently stretch three to five times per week. The key is perseverance – it may take several months for certain stretches to become comfortable. Don't push yourself too hard .You shouldn't feel pain in your stretching, and over-stretching will only push your goal further away.
Give your muscles time to heal, rest and repair themselves, by alternating light days of stretching with heavier ones, and always give yourself at least one rest day per week.
When researching for this article, the author consulted the following resources:
Stretching – a vital part of dancers training and practice, by Tania Huddart for DANZ ©.www.danz.org.nz/Magazines/DQ/April2012/stretching.php
Stretching for dancers, by Brenda Critchfield, MS, ATC, under the auspices of the Education and Media Committees of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. www.iadms.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=353
Stretching rules for dancers, by Ausdance.